For a good example of how our system of government is in danger of devolving into a quasi-monarchy, consider this: Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, President Trump’s son-in-law and daughter, will be visiting China this fall to lay the groundwork for a subsequent visit by the president himself, who tweeted recently that he has become “very disappointed in China.”
Meanwhile, more than a half-year after the start of the Trump administration, the job of assistant secretary of state for East Asia still lies vacant.
Novices like Kushner and Ivanka Trump typically fall into traps when they try to deal with China. You might call this a form of guidance for them. Alternatively, you might instead call this essay a description of how Beijing will handle them and why their involvement is more likely to set back, rather than help, America’s interests.
I mention the job of assistant secretary of state for East Asia because, ordinarily, the person who holds that job helps to coordinate preparations for a presidential trip to China. Even when the White House runs China policy, as it often does, it’s still the bureaucracy that normally handles the paperwork and the necessary diplomacy that goes along with it.
One example: America’s allies and friends in Asia, such as Japan and South Korea, are always nervous about a presidential trip to China. They fear secret agreements or understandings. They need to be regularly briefed and reassured that their own interests are being taken into account.
In past administrations, the assistant secretary of state for East Asia was often the person responsible for keeping our allies in the loop on our China policy. If no one holds that job, and if Jared is the official responsible for Trump’s visit to China, the likelihood is that the Japanese will ask for regular meetings with Kushner—and they can wait outside his West Wing office in a line that may also include Israelis, Palestinians, Mexicans, tech entrepreneurs, and all the other accounts he holds.
The people who have occupied that East Asia position at the State Department include prominent figures who, for better or worse, left their mark on American foreign policy, from Averill Harriman, Dean Rusk, William Bundy, and Philip Habib in the early years to Richard Holbrooke, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Solomon, Winston Lord, Christopher Hill, and Kurt Campbell more recently. Under Trump, so far: Nobody.
And it is experienced officials who might help Jared and Ivanka to avoid falling for all the standard lines and ploys—the ones that, over the years, China has used to co-opt visitors and to throw them off their negotiating agendas.
All of the analysis and temperature-taking about the weekly ups and downs of Trump’s relations with China thus far have been, in a way, premature. What’s most important, and what Beijing most cares about, is not the first two years of a presidency, but rather the two years (or the six years) afterward, when Americans are paying less attention. China seeks to create a situation in which, over the long run, a president and his White House will essentially give up on the idea of pushing or challenging it too much.
Keep in mind, too, that China’s goal with any new administration is to find one or two top officials, just below the president, to whom it can go with pleas to override whatever the U.S. government is planning to do that Beijing won’t like—be it responses to human-rights abuses, penalties on trade, or countering military actions in the South China Sea.
This is where Kushner and Ivanka come in. Often, the person China chooses as its principal interlocutor in is the national security adviser. (See: Henry Kissinger). But it appears that with the Trump administration, it may be the first son-in-law and first daughter.
Here are just a few the pitches they are likely to get repeatedly in Beijing:
1) You are a friend of China, a lao pengyou (Chinese for “old friend”). OK, this line is such a standard routine that most people have heard it, possibly including Jared and Ivanka themselves. It is meant to convey a sense of obligation—to lay the groundwork for the argument later on that as a friend of China, you will help us with this something or other, or that China will be disappointed if the “old friend” doesn’t come through for it.
2) You are the wise and far-sighted ones. This line is not as well-known as the “old friend” routine, but it is just as common. Jared and Ivanka, if China tells you that you are wise and far-sighted, please know that you are joining many scores of senior American officials who’ve been told the same thing. The implicit message here is that other U.S. officials—say, back in the Pentagon or in the State Department’s human-rights office or the U.S. trade representative’s office who are seeking to take action against China in one way or another—are merely short-sighted pygmies, compared to your supposed wisdom in deciding to overrule them.
3) China is the future. This vague line is more abstract and less personal, but it can sometimes have almost a hypnotic effect on high-level American officials, even presidents. The message is that China is so important that we should forget all our ordinary, day-to-day concerns and our usual rules and standards.
To be sure, China is a huge and powerful country, and yes, it will play an even bigger role in world affairs in the decades to come. The question is not whether China will be important in the future, but what sort of China we want to be dealing with in the future. Do we want to help encourage or perpetuate an authoritarian, mercantilist regime? Will we be better off with China in the coming years if our government suspends the usual principles that we regularly apply in dealing with other countries? Might that not help encourage China to do whatever it wants? And would that be healthy for the United States or for its allies?
I have not yet included here the final, huge source of concern in this situation: Jared and Ivanka and their families have their own huge business interests, including in China, and at least some people in Beijing may try to co-opt or reward them by helping those private interests. By way of historical perspective, it was considered a serious potential conflict-of-interest in the 1980s when Prescott Bush, President George H.W. Bush’s brother, started to do business in China. But Prescott Bush was operating on his own, not on behalf of the White House or the American people, and his business interests were extremely small in comparison with those of the Trumps and the Kushners.
I’m sure that Jared and Ivanka think they are obtaining all the guidance they need about China because they have talked from time to time with Henry Kissinger. Yet Kissinger’s judgments on China can turn out to be questionable or self-interested or both.
So if they want to read something stemming from the Kissinger era that would be far more helpful in preparing them, they should turn instead to the classic study Chinese Political Negotiating Behavior, by one of Kissinger’s former aides, the late Richard Solomon.
In it, Solomon gave a detailed description of the techniques China repeatedly uses, from controlling the ambience of meetings to playing dumb or applying pressure tactics.
In his summary, Solomon wrote: “The most distinctive characteristic of Chinese negotiating behavior is the effort to develop and manipulate strong interpersonal relationships with foreign officials…
“The Chinese distrust impersonal or legalistic negotiations. In managing a negotiation, they attempt to identify a sympathetic counterpart official and work to cultivate a personal relationship, a sense of ‘friendship’ and obligation; they then attempt to manipulate feelings of good will, obligation, guilt or dependence to achieve their negotiating objectives.”
Those words would appear to describe the role China envisions for Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump. It would be nice to think they will be able to resist the standard Chinese ploys. But I doubt they’re savvy enough.